The New Digital Age

Who says that watching TV is not educational or a good use of time?*!

While watching the Colbert Report, I saw a spot on The New Digital Agea new book written by top Google Execs.  Fascinating and much to do with the types of things our group of faculty has been discussing!  You should check it out!

They pose an interesting idea->”The internet is one of the few things that humans have built that they do not completely understand.”  Why?

The point they make is interesting.  The internet’s properties and where it takes us all are based on humans, what they do and what they need.  Humans are unpredictable and, as a result, we cannot really predict the potential of the internet or the real impacts it will have.  Could this be the reason why our predecessors in the ’70s until now have not successfully predicted the potential of the internet, either overshooting or undershooting it?  Is this why the internet is greater than the sum of it’s parts?

Biology, brain science in particular, has long since held this principle–the organism or the brain is greater than the sum of its parts.  The collective leads to emergent properties that we wouldn’t have predicted.  Rather, we look at the outcome and try to figure out how we got more complexity from a series of less complex parts.

Robots and related technology still cannot perform at the level of a human.  Motions are not fluid and processing requires every step to be followed and integrated. In other words, the element of “machine” still exists.  Recently, a Virginia Tech undergraduate researcher tried to explain to me why this is the case and how he is trying to program the machine to operate more like a human. Let me see if I can articulate what he shared.

If our brain stored every piece of information we encounter for recovery the next time we need it, the space (memory) would quickly fill. Perhaps our brain is only capable of storing a few gigabytes of information, significantly less than powerful computers but yet we are able to do things and make connections the computer can not.  Our brain “looks” for things that are new, creates and stores memories by association. This means that the first assessment is always, “is this thing or experience similar to something I have encountered before”. The elements of similarity are connected to something already stored and only the new information results in a new connection or memory.  Right now, most computers operate by storing ALL of the information and then trying to make the connections or patterns from that, recalling the requested information or task.  In other words, every piece of information is new or has been predicted based on a formula, limiting the capacity of the digital entity and requiring huge amounts of memory.

It seems then, that one of the holy grails of the digital age is making a computer or computer system that operates like the human brain or like a biological system.  In some ways, it seems that the internet has done this but it is because its emergent properties are determined by the PEOPLE who use it…Does this make the internet more human that we would like to admit?

Has the power of digital processing made us boring?

In the reading Personal Dynamic Media, two things struck me: 1)  “Every message is, in one sense or another, a simulation of some idea.” and 2) “If medium is the message, then the message of low-band-width timesharing is blah”.  With the latter comment in the context of engaging children, I thought of the current generation of college students and wondered if this might be the reason so many things that I think are wonderous and important elicit a “boredom response” from students.

Is it because they were raised on the nectar of manipulation of content and limitless imagination and that their vision could be immediately be made not only “real”, a manifestation of their vision, but also beautiful and obviously professional?  By the time they are five, they “feel accomplished” and their development is continuously fed by the speedy and “easy” results.  Here, I think of their perceptions…The tasks students engage in and the interests they pursue are not necessary fast or easy, but the technology engages them in a way that feeds their perceptions of ease, keeping them engaged for longer.  It is my methods -> talking and sharing interests, discoveries, and ideas and -> listening to their ideas and what they have discovered that they can’t connect to…Is it my responsibility to meet them where they are, adapting the message to their digitally rich world?  I think the answer is YES…that is if I care to engage them, to shift their perceptions, to help them connect to people and ideas.

How I can manage to retrain myself, I have no idea!  Time and brain power!

How can I manage to get students to train me, thus learning more about how to connect in the old fashioned way 🙂



“Much ado about MOOCS!”

Several months ago I read about  I immediately thought it is an interesting and exciting concept.  Though suspicious of its quality, value, and long-term viability, I gave it the benefit of the doubt because I know and think very highly of a  faculty member teaching a course on evolution…and the institutions represented are among the top.  I threw it out to students on Facebook, asking them if this type of education represents a “revolution”…I got one response, a simple like and a question “Are the courses any good?”

Next, I through it out to a number of faculty at Virginia Tech to ask if they had heard of such a thing and what they thought about it.  This generated significantly more conversation, most of which was focused around the following questions:

  1. How are courses, faculty, and institutions chosen to participate?
  2. How do faculty get credit for this type of teaching?
  3. How is student learning and participation evaluated?
  4. What do the student-student and student-faculty interactions look like?
  5. Who is paying for this service?  If it is the university, is that a reasonable cost?
  6. How is the quality of courses monitored and maintained?

Just last week, my interest in these questions was reignited when I received my regular article from the Tomorrow’s Professor e-newsletter out of Standford.  The article, Much Ado about MOOCS, was originially posted at the end of 2012 in the AAUP’s publication.  Though the article raised a number of questions about MOOCS (including some of those above), one statement in particular gave me pause, wondering what the alternatives are and how many faculty are prepared to serve in the digital realm…The possibilities are myriad, but the success of MOOCs will depend on the degree to which faculty members are involved in the entire process, from development to testing and credentialing.

Another piece that I spent some time thinking about is the low MOOC completion rate while, at the same time, many are convinced that MOOCs are the new solution to challenges in access to education.  Apparently the Gates Foundation is funding some pilot studies on MOOCs to improve the success of underrepresented and first generation student in college…I am anxious to hear the outcomes of those pilots!  One is at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where I will be traveling in a few weeks.

A number of other things shocked me, of course.  At the time of the writing of the article, only Colorado State University is known to be offering university credit for a single MOOC, an introduction to computer science.”  I was also surprised (though I shouldn’t be) that there is a bit of a rush of folks trying to make a profit from MOOCs.

Your thoughts on MOOCS?


What is “it” worth?

What information is valuable?  How is this value determined?  What is the longevity of the value and the information itself?  How is

Many searches seem to operate by popularity or on the cleverness of the owner of the information.  In other words, what is important is determined by the popular vote of the masses or by the entity that wants us to consume their information.  This method for generating the top hits on queries may allow some of the most interesting and, perhaps, the most relevant and accurate information out of reach for most of us.

Much of innovation and leaps forward in discovery come at the margins, things that seems insignificant at the time or that, in the original context, boring.  What would happen if key fringe information was ignored because of a low popularity score and faded away as time passed?

J.J. Thomson, who is credited with the discovery the electron in 1897 and won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for this contribution to science, was said to have the following quote on the wall of his lab:  “To the electron: may it never be of any use!”  He could not have imagined what would come of his discovery and the places others would take us using the electron as the foundation.

Is there a way we can program a search for sagacity or to promote serendipity?  Some have suggested creating customizable searches, e.g. we set the parameters of importance to determine the distribution of the information and associations returned.  Others have suggested that we increase our capacity for human connections, which could both narrow and broaden the scope of information or associations returned. Can artificial intelligence help us create the optimum digital search and association platform?

I am still uncomfortable with the 100% digital repository and our reliance on the digital search.  I find it difficult to imagine the value of digital only in the absence of real-time, interaction with the creativity of another person or group of people.  We gain so much from cues that are not easily replicated in a digital environment.   I can also imagine natural disasters or something like a “zombie apocolypse” when electricity and related resources are absent.  In these cases, where and how would we get our information, a local scale?  What information would be lost and require a complete rediscovery?  Am I alarmist?